I love primary sources - letters, diaries, receipts, journals, inventories, and so on - that can act as an instant link to the past. (Apparently many of you agree: one of my most popular posts explored the inventory of an 18thc. woman's wardrobe.) Reading the elegant handwriting in faded ink, turning over the still-crisp papers, seeing the very human blotches of ink, misspellings, or doodles, can all make the intervening centuries disappear.
Last week I went searching through the papers of Philadelphian John Cadwalader (1742-1786) in the collection of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Cadwalader was a prominent merchant and landowner, and during the American Revolution, he became one of General Washington's commanders. He kept voluminous records of his finances and daily expenses, many of which survived and are now in the HSP's collections.
Looseleaf pages like this one, left, from January, 1772 might seem like the driest of accounting, a day-by-day catalog of Cadwalader's expenses. But the entries reveal not only more about Cadwalader's own personal and household spending, but also fascinating details about life in the 18thc. city.
In addition to the money given to "Jem Sampson for marketing" (I'm assuming he or she was the cook, though there is also another entry marked "paid to the Cook"), much of the household's food was bought directly from specialized shops or from individuals. Cadwalader lists items on this sheet for almonds, loaves of bread, yeast, lemons, and squab pigeons. Another page includes "a String of fish" and a payment to "a Woman on the German-Town Road for Eggs." He bought wine, too: "Mr. Morris for 5 Bottles Frontenacc."
Of course I was interested in seeing what was spent on clothing. Other pages have numerous expenses for Mrs. Cadwalader's wardrobe as well as his own, but two of the more expensive bills on this page are paid to "Isaac Parish for a Hat", and a whopping £4 for a "Muff & Tipit" to keep Mrs. Cadwalader warm. (To put that in perspective: modern estimates are that a common laborer in the 18thc. colonies earned roughly £40 annually, a schoolteacher earned £60, and a minister around £100. Odds are none of them were spending £4 for a muff and tipit.)
There are many entries for postage, for letters carried to New York and sent to far-away London. He paid for services like chimney-sweeping, "for Quilting a Cradle Quilt," and "for Bleeding Moll Singo & Jem Sampson." He had energy costs: "6 Cord Wood from over the Schuylkill [River]." Other pages include the annual fee for his church pew, payments to Charles Willson Peale for portraits of his family (including the one right), contributions to what would become the University of Pennsylvania, and alms to the poor, all signs of responsible, respectable 18thc. gentleman.
But there's another side to all this lavish spending that only appears in a couple of references: the expenses pertaining to the "Negroes." Scholars today guess that the Cadwaladers had at least seven slaves in their city house, and there were surely more working the family's sizable plantation on the Sassafras River in Kent County, Maryland. Were Jem (perhaps short for Jemima) and Moll among those enslaved people? The most important slave in George Washington's household during his presidency in Philadelphia in the 1790s was his cook, Hercules. Could Jem have had that trusted status with the Cadwaladers, too? (If anyone knows for certain, I'd love to learn more.)
And all that from what amounts to an 18thc. check register.
Above: Looseleaf page from John Cadwalader papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Lower right: John and Elizabeth Lloyd Cadwalader and their Daughter Anne, by Charles Willson Peale, 1772. Philadelphia Museum of Art.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.